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Demystifying the Iron Maiden

November 6, 2011 04:00 PM

ValerieHedlund article1 ValerieHedlund article2 ValerieHedlund article3
Since successfully completing the Iron Maiden Challenge at the August 2011, San Diego RKC, I keep getting the same question: "How did you train for it…?"
 
That’s a bit of a trick question and everyone wants the easy answer… If you do (fill in desired program name) for (fill in requisite time duration) of time then viola, in no time you will be Iron Maiden #(fill in number)!!!
 
It feels good and pretty darn cool to be the 3rd woman ever to complete this challenge successfully, especially at 5’3" and 131-lbs, but while training for it, I kept feeling I must be doing something wrong and wondering, ‘Why aren’t more women completing this?’ No slight intended to the women who have it on their radar, to the contrary, I know there are women in the RKC who are stronger than I am and more than capable of doing what I did.
 
I’m going to break down my training in hopes that the number of Iron Maidens surpasses the number of Beast Tamers in the next two years. That’s my challenge to all of you strong, capable women out there. Your fellow RKCs are here to help and the more women who do this, the stronger we are as a community.
 
I performed the Iron Maiden this last August while assisting at the RKC. Having the honor to assist is such a great experience. Not only do you get to teach the RKC hopefuls, you have the chance to listen to the Senior RKCs and Team Leaders teach and lead their teams. You pick up on stuff you may have missed the first time around, or what has changed since you went through your RKC.
 
One of several things emphasized over and over all weekend was the RKC method of Kettlebells as a PRACTICE, not a workout, and that Strength is a SKILL. I remember this being taught when I went through the RKC in 2009, so I feel the groundwork was already laid, and was the first step for me to complete the Iron Maiden successfully. I’m sure many of you do these things, but it is a VERY good reminder.
 
First, let’s talk about PRACTICE… I had to look it up because I only remember my dad saying it over and over as I was playing the clarinet, but it was Vince Lombarti who said, "Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."
 
Yes, kettlebells are a PRACTICE, you must practice the fundamentals and attempt to execute your lifts with perfect form, EVERY day. Over the San Diego RKC weekend, Brett Jones told one of the teams that he’s been doing this for more than ten years and he still hopes that one day, he’ll have a perfect swing. I remember him telling our group the same thing two years ago and I use it all of the time with my clients. Kettlebell exercises are nothing like the dumbbell bicep curl. You show someone the dumbbell bicep curl and they pretty much have it- very little cueing is needed. Kettlebells are different- there is so much going on with your body when you’re using kettlebells, there's always room for improvement, always something to work on. Some people find it frustrating, but I find it exhilarating! It feels like the sky is the limit.
 
The same is true for all of the lifts. Perfect form while practicing the press, pistol, or pull-up with a light kettlebell will help you perform each lift with heavier weights more easily.
 
That is what I focused on for a long time with all three Iron Maiden lifts. While performing multiple low-rep sets with sub-maximal weights, the focus was on form. Every rep, in my mind, needed to be perfect. If a rep wasn’t perfect, I would drop the weight until it was. The way I see it, it’s not ok to train just to get through the movement out of sheer strength or will. That’s how people get hurt! Plus, I knew training that way wouldn’t get me to the Iron Maiden and beyond. Sloppy form gets you nowhere…
 
Which brings me to another focus of the RKC weekend: STRENGTH is a SKILL. I’m sure you all remember the Press portion of the RKC weekend. I like pressing. Scratch that, I LOVE pressing! This will always be one of my favorite parts of the RKC weekend and I hope it never changes. It’s the time when you’ve learned the clean, you’ve gotten tight in the plank, you’ve learned new pressing skills, practiced your newly learned skills with a lighter weight, and then they ask you to try to press one weight heavier than you’ve previously pressed. And almost everyone does! How can that be? Did the candidates have weeks or months to train before lifting the heavier weight? Nope - only minutes, actually.
 
Is it just that the RKC hopefuls weren’t really trying to press heavier before the RKC? Probably not. Is it because Pavel is around and there’s a strength vortex surrounding him and everyone within a 100-meter radius gets automatically stronger in his presence? Possibly. The more likely answer though, is that they LEARNED how to use the right muscles, use their bodies more efficiently, and they learned the SKILL of pressing.
 
When learning any new skill, it helps to have an interest in what you’re learning. I think when honing your strength skill, it helps to have a general understanding of the human body and how it works, a curious mind, and not be afraid to be the "permanent beginner", as Dan John so humbly spoke about at the San Diego RKC.
 
How do you learn a new skill? You can read a book or article and try it out on your own. OR, you can ask someone who either knows more than you or has been doing it longer than you! Find a mentor. Find a couple mentors. It’s just another thing to love about the RKC: there’s no shortage of highly skilled and knowledgeable mentors. There are so many people in the RKC who are willing to freely share their training knowledge. It’s a rare thing to find in the personal training community. We all work for ourselves and in the past and currently in other communities, there’s a sense of knowledge-hoarding. Kind of a "I thought of it and I’m not going to tell you about it because I’m afraid you’ll steal it" attitude. I have found that RKCs are more than willing to help each other because as we each hone our individual skills, it strengthens the RKC as a whole.
 
I like to practice what I preach, so when I was stuck on my pistol and my pull-up about a year ago, I went to visit my friend Franz Snideman, Senior RKC. Franz is incredible at spotting inefficiencies in movements and fixing them on the spot. I had been doing pistols on boxes or steps for years, but rarely with any weight over 12-kg and never from the floor with the non-working leg out in front of me. Franz watched my pistol, we did a couple of drills, a couple of stretches, and within 20-minutes, I had the 24-kg pistol on my left leg. Did I get twice as strong in 20-minutes with Franz? Does he have the same Pavel-esque strength vortex? Or was my strength always there and did I simply learn the intricacies of the pistol form? Probably the latter. Franz taught me the SKILL.
 
The pull-up was not as easy. Franz basically told me to do the opposite of what I was currently doing with my pull-up. In the nicest way possible (because Franz is such a kind man), he told me I was doing everything wrong for a weighted pull-up. Apparently, my pull-up was typical body-builder’s type of all arms, all back extension, no abs. Franz told me to bring everything forward and perform a more "tactical" version of the pull-up. I used to be able to do 15-20 pull-ups with my old body-builder form and with the new tactical form, I could do maybe three. With zero ab involvement in my old pull-up, this was really difficult for me. I had to re-learn what I had been doing since I was a little girl (well, little tom-boy). As a female who could do pull-ups, I never asked anyone for help with my form! I thought it was either you can do them and you, well, just do them or you can’t and you ask for help!
 
My pullup was even more proof that EVERYONE needs a coach. Everyone needs a mentor. Everyone needs someone who knows more, who has been doing it longer, and who is willing to teach them the skill of strength.
 
On my own, I practiced all three lifts with my new form. I focused on perfect form and worked at least one of the Iron Maiden lifts into every workout I did for 6 months. My pull-up was not coming as quickly as I would have liked and so I spent more time on that lift. I spent one month, about every 2-3 days greasing the groove with the pull-up. I used whatever weight felt challenging but not enough to go to failure with any set. I built my confidence with lighter weight and perfect form. Then after a month of training, I got the pull-up with the 24kg kettlebell to my chin. It wasn’t to my neck and I couldn’t do it every time, but I was so close.
 
Pulling to my chin happened about 6 weeks before the RKC and that’s when I enlisted the help of another friend. Now, I am a personal trainer who is a former collegiate runner and whose clients are mostly focused on losing weight. I love lifting heavy things. It’s really fun. But I know my limitations and programming for strength is not, ironically enough, one of my strengths. So, going back to practicing what I preach, I told Andrew Read, RKC Team Leader, and of DragonDoor Australia, that I wanted to make the Iron Maiden look easy. I needed a training program that would get me there. Andrew is a seasoned strength coach and very graciously put together a program which I followed (except for the first week when I was being stubborn – note to self, be coachable) and I felt myself getting stronger and more confident with every passing week. Then, five days before the event, I did six rounds of the Iron Maiden and my 5th was with the 28kg!!! The exclamation point is because I completely surprised myself and it just goes to show what is possible when you have a plan and stick to it.
 
Here is what I did in the 6 weeks leading up to the Iron Maiden Challenge:
 
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
       
15/ July
Pull up 3 x 3*
Pistol 3 x 3
Press 3 x 3
Asst. –
Face Pulls 3 x 10
Pull Overs 3 x10
16
Practice all level 1 skills with circuit. Plus snatch 3 x 1min: 1 min off.
 
 
 
 
18
Pull Up:
 
• 4,3,2,1 Pull Ups with increasing weight – top set probably 20kg.
• Weighted chins 3 x AMRAP with weight (use a weight that allows ~5 reps on first set)
Press:
4 , 3, 2, 1
19
Pistol:
10 sets of 5.
Batwings:
10 sets of 5
 
 
 
 
 
20
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
21
Pull Up:
10 sets of 5 with weight.
Press:
10 sets of 5.
 
 
 
 
22
Pistols:
4,3,2,1
Batwings:
4,3,2,1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
23
Practice all level 1 skills with circuit. Plus snatch 3 x 2min on: 2min off.
 
25
Pull Up:
3 x 3 Pull Ups done as per 15/ July
Press:
3 x 3
 
 
 
 
 
26
Pistols:
15 sets of 5
Batwings:
15 sets of 5
 
 
 
 
27
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
28
Pull Ups:
15 sets of 5 with weight.
Press:
15 sets of 5.
 
 
 
29
Pistols:
3 x 3
Batwings:
3 x 3
 
 
 
 
 
 
30
Practice all level 1 skills with circuit. Plus snatch 3 x 2min on: 2min off
1/ August
Pull Up:
5 x 2 - rep 1 = 24kg,
rep 2 = 12kg.
Press:
5 x 2
 
 
 
 
 
2
Pistols:
20 sets of 5
Batwings:
20 sets of 5
 
 
 
 
3
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
4
Pull Ups:
20 sets of 5 with weight.
Press:
20 sets of 5
 
 
 
5
Pistols:
5 x 2
Batwings 5 x 2
 
 
 
 
 
 
6
Practice all level 1 skills with circuit. Plus snatch 3 x 3min on: 3min off
8
Pull Up –
2 sets of eccentric only with 24+kg x 2 reps.
Pull Up and Press:
4-6 x 1
 
 
 
 
 
 
9
Pistol:
4-6 x 1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
10
Pull Up and Press:
2-3 x 3
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
11
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
12
Pull Up –
2 x 2 with 24+kg as for Monday
 
Pull Up
Pistol
Press
 
All 3-6 x 1.
13
Practice all level 1 skills with circuit. Plus snatch 3min all out.
 
 
 
15
Pull Up and Press:
4-6 x 1
 
 
16
 
 
 
 
17
1-3 x 1 for all skills
 
 
18
 
 
 
 
19
Iron Maiden at RKC San Diego
20
 
 
 
 
 
• for these Pull ups use 12s on each foot. Do 1 rep with both, drop a 12 for the second rep, then drop the other for the third. So load = 24kg x 1, 12kg x 1, 0kg x 1. Like a drop set.
 
I hope I’ve helped to demystify the Iron Maiden for some of you. It has felt strange recently, people coming to me for "tricks" or the "secret formula" to performing these three lifts. I don’t want to claim that it was easy because it was ANYTHING but. It did seem simple to me though.
 
I don’t have super-human strength and I didn’t take a magic pill. I enjoy practicing with kettlebells and I am fascinated with little nuances of human movement. I worked on the basics of the three lifts for a long time and I learned the intricacies of the moves. I asked for help when I needed it and I did the work.
 
It wasn’t easy. It was simple.

 
RKC, FMS, CSCS
 
 

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